Auburn, Miami, Other Pretenders Exposed

Auburn Tigers QB T.J. Finley
Auburn Tigers QB T.J. Finley
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 3 - On a weekend with no marquee challenger to any of the country's most elite teams, those contenders chalked up impressive performances across the board. Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, and Oklahoma all won decisively against varying qualities of opponents. Oklahoma's win was the highest above expectations as the Sooners beat Nebraska by 35 after the closing spread settled closer to 10. None of these teams had to break a sweat in the second half of its game, and each has shown impressive strength on both sides of the ball. Any lingering questions for these teams will have to wait for future weeks and higher quality opposition.

Beyond the top, weaknesses were exposed, concerns were magnified, and expectations were diminished. Those are the games we will focus on this week.

Notes:

  • All rankings referenced are from Brian Fremeau's FEI numbers heading into the weekend.
  • EPA/play includes special teams and penalties, so combining EPA/rush and EPA/pass numbers won't give the same total as what the top line number shows.

Pretenders Exposed

No. 8 Penn State Nittany Lions 41, No. 17 Auburn Tigers 12

Advanced Box Score: Penn State vs. Auburn

An anxiety-filled offseason for Auburn looked like it would include the dismissal of Coach Brian Harsin after just one year. A truce was reached, but just as the season got underway, athletic director Alan Greene announced he was stepping away from the school. Harsin's biggest backer was gone, and he would need to demonstrate clear and significant improvement on the field to earn wider goodwill. Saturday afternoon, Auburn welcomed Penn State to Jordan-Hare Stadium with a chance for a statement win. The Tigers made a statement, alright: they aren't ready for the big time this year.

Penn State moved the ball at will, manhandled Auburn, and forced a quarterback change for the Tigers. Altogether, Auburn gave up six sacks and three interceptions; T.J. Finley was able to find some room on the ground but was dreadful trying to throw before he gave way to Robby Ashford.

Nick Singleton, the true freshman running back for the Nittany Lions, dazzled fans last week with a 10-carry, 179-yard performance against Ohio. Could he do the same thing on the big stage against a nasty Auburn front? Dazzling again, Singleton had his second straight game averaging over 10 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns, and he was responsible for 5.8 EPA on the ground by himself. Sean Clifford acquitted himself well against a defense that came into the game rated 19th nationally by SP+. He completed over 70% of his throws and put up a very solid 9.2 EPA through the air. The Penn State passing performance rated in the 92nd percentile, which every Nittany Lion fan would take for the rest of the year.

Penn State doesn't look to be on the same plane as Ohio State and Michigan, but this was an excellent win on the road. Auburn, on the other hand, has trouble on the field and in its halls of power.

No. 20 Texas A&M Aggies 17, No. 38 Miami Hurricanes 9

Advanced Box Score: Texas A&M vs. Miami

Texas A&M brought plenty of its own anxiety into the late-night Saturday battle with Mario Cristobal's Miami Hurricanes. Jimbo Fisher faced a litany of questions throughout the week about his management of the offense and quarterback position, and he ultimately announced a change at starting quarterback from Haynes King to Max Johnson. That move didn't move the needle for the Aggies offense, as the win came despite Johnson producing -2.7 EPA through the air. Texas A&M used a huge advantage on special teams (+10.0 EPA) and a very solid defense to keep control of this one.

Miami, missing start slot receiver Xavier Restrepo, couldn't find enough in the passing game to take the game back. Tyler Van Dyke's average depth of target is down from 10.7 yards in his breakout 2021 season to 8.4 this year. The absence of Charleston Rambo and the lack of an incoming big-play threat has been limiting for the Hurricanes' offense. Miami succeeded on only 32% of its passing plays and produced only three explosives in the passing game, per Game on Paper. That's not the offense that we saw last year for Miami, and Josh Gattis has to find ways to let his quarterback push the ball further down the field to maximize his abilities.

Miami had the more impressive overall performance, as evidenced by its advantages in EPA/play, yards per play, and available yards gained. Facing a Texas A&M defense that was depleted in the secondary because of suspension and unable to generate any efficient passing, Miami let one go. The Hurricanes will have ample opportunity to contend for the ACC Coastal, but their larger goals are probably off the table. For A&M, the quarterback position has no good answer, and the SEC West gauntlet awaits.

No. 24 LSU Tigers 31, No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs 16

Advanced Box Score: Mississippi State vs. LSU

With an ascending Mississippi State team travelling to Death Valley on Saturday night, Brian Kelly faced the prospect of losing two of his first three games, while Mike Leach sought a program-elevating win. It was the ferocious defense of the Tigers that proved decisive. Jayden Daniels was adequate leading the LSU offense, posting -1.0 passing EPA to go with 2.3 rushing EPA. He connected with Malik Nabers on a key fourth-down conversion (credit to the LSU staff for making a great decision to go for it) in the middle of the fourth quarter that netted about 18% of win probability. Overall, the LSU offense was in striking distance of average in just about every major metric. A 47-yard touchdown run from Armoni Goodwin sealed things late, but this victory can mostly be credited to some fluky special teams and excellent defensive play.

A fumbled punt return went the opposite way for LSU this time, as Austin Williams' fumble late in the third quarter added 19% of win probability for the Tigers. Overall, Mississippi State lost four turnovers and experienced -13.9 points of turnover luck. But LSU was still the better team, winning the EPA, success rate, and yards per play margins. With one interception and four sacks to go with less than 5 yards per dropback, Will Rogers posted -15.6 EPA, and the Mississippi State rushing attack was not able to bail out the ailing passing game.

This game is just one of many that will help determine who ends up in the second spot, likely below Alabama, in the SEC West. There are good but potentially flawed teams top to bottom in this division. On this night, LSU was better, but not necessarily in a manner that felt completely sustainable. For Mississippi State, the chance to cement itself as a top-10 caliber team in the models as well as the polls fell by the wayside. The offense simply has to be better. This LSU defense was 21st in SP+ entering the game, but the Bulldogs still have to face the fourth-, 11th-, second-, and 19th-rated defenses. It's tough living in the SEC West.

No. 35 Washington Huskies 39, No. 22 Michigan State Spartans 28

Advanced Box Score: Michigan State vs. Washington

A fascinating Big Ten-Pac 12 match up pitted one of 2021's most disappointing teams against one of its most pleasantly surprising. Mel Tucker is trying to keep last year's magic going, while Kalen DeBoer is undertaking his effort at a quick turnaround in Washington. On Saturday, the Huskies proved their mettle, jumping out to a three-touchdown halftime lead on the arm of Michael Penix Jr. and then extending that to 25 points in the fourth.

Penix put up a massive 24.6 EPA in the passing game, and his throws generated 46% of win probability for his Huskies. All this came against a defense that SP+ rated 20th nationally heading into this week. The explosive Penix-led offense that we enjoyed at Indiana in 2020 looks to be back, and that's exciting for Washington fans. On the other side, though, Michigan State does not appear to have solved the pass-defense issues that reared their heads in the latter part of 2021.

Payton Thorne generated solid offensive efficiency metrics, but much of that came in effective garbage time. Washington was never in any real danger of relinquishing its lead. After 20 offensive plays, Michigan State had generated -10.4 EPA, and that tells a much truer story of the game than the eventual positive numbers the Spartans mustered. Washington was about a three-point favorite but played more like a 21-point favorite in the competitive portion of this one. It's an encouraging start for the DeBoer/Penix pairing and a concerning continuation of the under-the-surface issues that the Spartans covered over in the second half of last year.

No. 50 Oregon Ducks 41, No. 31 BYU Cougars 20

Advanced Box Score: BYU vs. Oregon

Staying out west, BYU travelled to Oregon on Saturday afternoon. Oregon was still marred by the Week 1 thumping from Georgia, while BYU was riding high off of a thrilling overtime win over Baylor last week. Dan Lanning was staring at the frustrating potential of a 1-2 start to his tenure, while BYU was starting to get playoff buzz. Not so fast.

BYU's inability to run the ball against Baylor carried over in a major way in this one, but the suffocating pass defense from last week did not. The oft-criticized Bo Nix generated 10.9 EPA in the air and another 4.5 EPA on the ground. His 11.1 yards per dropback largely defined the game. Oregon was determined to create more explosiveness in the passing game, as Nix's 9.0-yard aDOT dwarfed the 2.7 and 6.2 numbers he had posted in the season's first two games. The Oregon rushing attack was even more effective compared to average. It's worth remembering that the Ducks did move the ball to a small degree against Georgia; this could be an excellent offense in Eugene.

For BYU, Jaren Hall was his usual reliable self, but the Cougars' woes on the ground are worrisome, especially as the two key receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua continue to miss time. The BYU offensive line is simply not living up to its potential in the running game. For the third straight game, its pass blocking grades were elite, while the run blocking grades were a full 30 points lower. That has to get cleaned up for BYU to reach its ceiling.

Toe Drags

No. 33 USC Trojans 45, No. 54 Fresno State Bulldogs 17

For the third straight game to open the Lincoln Riley era, USC covered the point spread but played questionable defense and received enormous turnover luck. Saturday night, that turnover luck accounted for 13.9 points of the final margin. USC allowed Fresno State to put up above average numbers in every significant offensive category except for red zone success. That cost the Bulldogs. There's little room for doubt with this USC offense, but the defense is going to cost the Trojans eventually.

No. 45 Syracuse Orange 32, No. 28 Purdue Boilermakers 29

Perhaps the craziest fourth quarter of the weekend concluded this feisty Big Ten-ACC matchup. Purdue was clearly the better team down-to-down but committed 13 penalties for 138 yards (including the unnecessary penalties that led to kicking off from its own 10-yard line to help set up the winning Syracuse touchdown). Aidan O'Connell was excellent except for the inexplicable throw that created a pick-six and gave Syracuse a two-possession lead in the middle of the fourth quarter. After that, O'Connell led two more touchdown drives, but the Boilermakers couldn't hold onto the lead they took with less than a minute play. Garrett Schrader was mostly bad for Syracuse but came up with a few enormous plays to claim this win.

No. 39 NC State Wolfpack 27, No. 52 Texas Tech Red Raiders 14

For the second time in three games, NC State won with less than 50% win expectancy. The Wolfpack gained 16.7 points of turnover luck in this one, and Devin Leary had -8.4 EPA passing. That's not going to work in the matchup with Clemson that is now less than two weeks away. The defense is very good, but the offense will not be able to hold serve against a better opponent.

Next Week's Headliners:

No. 5 Clemson at No. 30 Wake Forest
No. 25 Baylor at No. 11 Iowa State
No. 26 Florida at No. 16 Tennessee
No. 19 Minnesota at No. 22 Michigan State
No. 32 Arkansas at No. 20 Texas A&M
No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 3 Ohio state
No. 14 Kansas State at No. 6 Oklahoma

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